A South Korean lawmaker confirmed Thursday press reports that Jo Song Gil, North Korea’s ambassador to Italy, has gone into hiding while stationed in Rome.
“Acting ambassador Jo Song Gil’s term was ending in late November last year, and he escaped the diplomatic compound in early November” with his wife, according to lawmaker Kim Min-ki, who spoke with reporters following a closed-door meeting with South Korean intelligence officials.
Kim did not provide details as to Jo’s whereabouts or say whether the diplomat was planning to defect to South Korea.
The statement came after South Korean media had reported the same day that Jo had sought asylum for himself and his family in an unnamed European country, citing unnamed diplomatic sources in Seoul.
According to the South Korean daily newspaper JoongAng Ilbo, Ambassador Jo applied for asylum in December 2018 after being ordered to return to North Korea.
Italian officials were “agonizing” over what to do, the paper said, citing the unnamed source, who also added that they were “protecting him in a safe place.”
Italy later said it had not given asylum to Jo. The Italian Foreign Ministry added that North Korea had told them they would be sending a new ambassador to Rome in late 2018 following normal procedures.
Jo had been Pyongyang’s top diplomat in Rome since October 2017. The previous ambassador was expelled from Rome following North Korea’s sixth nuclear test in violation of UN resolutions.
Reports not yet confirmed
South Korean officials had not been able to immediately confirm the media reports that he had sought asylum. “We are looking into it,” a spokesperson from the country’s Ministry of Unification had said, adding that intelligence agencies could also not confirm the initial report.
If Jo has sought asylum, this would be the highest-level defection from North Korea by a diplomat since 2016, when Thae Yong Ho, then-deputy ambassador to the UK, sought asylum in South Korea.
In an interview with South Korean TV on Thursday, Thae said that he had worked with Ambassador Jo for more than a decade. Thae added that the Italian embassy was very important for North Korea because it negotiated with the World Food Program (WPF) in Rome over food aid to North Korea, which faces widespread food shortages.
Jo’s family with him
Many North Korean diplomats must leave family members behind when they go overseas to prevent them from defecting while working abroad.
Jo brought his wife and family with him when he came to Rome in May 2015, which suggests that he may come from a privileged family, the Korean newspaper said.
Jo is “known to be a son or son-in-law of one of the highest-level officials in the North’s regime,” it added.
North Korea is ruled by Kim Jong Un, a member of the Kim family dynasty that has controlled the country for three decades, quashing dissent and building up nuclear armaments in violation of international resolutions. Kim has also been accused of committing widespread human rights abuses.